At War With Food? Here’s How to Face Off.
If you’re like me, you can relate to being at war with food at some point during your life. The war with food quickly turns into a battle with your own body.
Food can be a source of great pleasure – central to celebration and ritual in all cultures. However, food is a source of stress for many. Re-learning healthy eating habits is essential for physical and psychological health if food has become a complex issue in your life. Here we describe some struggles you might notice with food if your eating has become disordered.
Stress causes measurable changes in the body. One of the changes has to do with neurochemicals called adrenalin and cortisol. Both of these chemicals are released when you feel stressed. Cortisol, in particular, is linked to cravings for carbs and sugar. Once you start eating carbs and sugar, the body develops a tolerance over time, but at first the tasty foods of the carb/sugar family cause a huge dopamine release. Dopamine is one of the happy chemicals, so food gets associated with a strong feeling of pleasure and calm.
Eating is also a behavior, not just a chemical process. We get into habits of eating to soothe us. Over time, just the habit of eating becomes paired with a feeling of calm. It’s a double whammy. We get a dopamine rush from the tasty food which is bad for us and we get addicted or dependent on the behavior of eating; kinda like how someone who smokes likes the behavior of lighting up just as much as the nicotine.
The production of cortisol (a stress hormone) increases as stress and trauma stack up over the lifespan. Cortisol increases overall appetite, late night binging and carb cravings. These habits, once established, are difficult to break. Below you’ll find some examples of overeating:
- Comfort eating. Food intake becomes a response to stress or a coping skill. This leads to weight gain, and over time, a higher weight set point – further amplifying self-loathing in a culture that bullies persons they consider ‘fat’. Body hate (the antithesis of body love) fuels depression and anxiety.
- Purposeful (sometimes unconscious) altering of physical appearance through overeating. This may be an attempt to mask sexuality or gender following sexual assault. This can be seen as a person’s attempt to not be seen as a sexual being.
- Binging (eating a large amount of food) and purging (vomiting), or use of laxatives.
2. Limiting food
- Obsessive thinking and rumination about food often have the paradoxical effect of restriction or starvation. Behavior is aimed at severely limiting calorie intake or types of food. Example: only eating foods that start with a “C”.
- A response to the need to exert control when the self has been violated, dominated, or intruded on in some way. May occur as a result of perfectionism or cultural pressure to be thin. Stigma occurs across all contexts including health providers who confuse thin with healthy.
- Purposeful distortion and emaciation of physical-sexual self to avoid further sexual attention and assault.
- A desire to be invisible. A psychological mechanism for ‘shrinking’ the self.
- An attempt to avoid or decrease menses due to phobia, fear, or mental distress.
- Slow suicide.
- Food becomes a suitable anesthesia for emotional and physical (SOMATIC) pain, producing a strong and predictable opiate-like response in the body.
4. Food and family misery
- The kitchen or dining room is the setting for familial stress and trauma for many people. You must recognize the patterns and generational experiences that have occurred around meal time or the dinner table as you make friends with food again. You must be aware of how family gatherings and rituals became defined by violence and shaming. You may have been picked on by your family for your weight, or what you ate at the table. You may have been forced to eat too much food or food that made you sick. Awareness (mindfulness), working through, and eventual closure can help restore the pleasure in eating.
5. Self-punishment, self-blame
- Food is a handy self-harm tool for survivors who are intent on self-punishing as a result of cognitive distortions and self-blame.
6. Body dysmorphia
- By definition, mental health issues and stress affect the way you think about yourself, see yourself, the way you connect to your body, and how you view your physical appearance. Food becomes a way for you to mediate those distorted perceptions.
7. Food and poverty
- There may have been a shortage of food when you were a child. Due to poverty or neglect, you may have had a low-quality diet that set up eating habits you are still dealing with today. You may have had your food restricted, altered, or there may have been harsh punishment around food/meals.
- Survivors may have experienced poverty, neglect and/or lack of food in their personal history. Hunger and the emotional/physical experience of it can be traumatic in itself. ‘Feeding up’ is a term coined by this author to help adults understand gorging behaviors after a childhood marked by hunger.
8. Food and trauma
- Food may have been involved when the survivor experienced trauma or witnessed/was told about a traumatic event. Food trauma can be coded in sensory memory in various ways – smells, taste, texture, or sound related to the food.
- Food may be directly involved in your trauma story and you may experience this via flashbacks and intrusive memories.
9. Food as an outlet for rage, shame, and disappointment
- Food may be chosen as the survivor’s only weapon to express powerful emotions that have not found another outlet.
10. Anxiety and depression manifested
- Appetite fluctuations, GI distress, weight gain, weight loss, as well as the experience of constriction in the body or bloating are common for persons experiencing depression and anxiety.
11. Food fear
- Survivors may express a phobia or fear of food.
- The irrational fear may be that the food or groups of food hold some mystical power.
- The irrational fear may or may not be related to weight gain.
- It is possible to be so disconnected from your body (through mechanisms of dissociation or depersonalization) that you literally forget to eat.
Recognizing that these food issues impact our ability to eat healthfully is the first step in recovery. Through treatment, support, and self-help, it is possible to sever the connection between food and stress/trauma. Food can once again be viewed as life-sustaining and enjoyable.
The keys to restoring a healthy relationship with food are to not restrict calories (this messes with metabolism and increases obsession with food), eat mindfully and regulate your appetite with regular meals. Find a way to fall in love with food again by taking a cooking class or learning a new cooking skill. Avoid foods that trigger illness or bingeing (usually processed super tasty foods that are high in sugar/salt and start cravings).
Eating well is not complicated when you follow these simple rules of thumb. It’s following the simple rules of thumb that is the catch!
1. Buy the best quality ingredients you can afford.
3. Regulate appetite with 3 basic meals per day. In between meals you can have as much liquid as you like (coffee, tea, flavored water).
4. Limit processed foods and sugary treats. Eradicate if possible, if not, use portion control and mindful eating to control bingeing.
5. Take note of how good you feel when you eat well and stop when full.
6. Take note of self-talk about food and your body. Refuse to entertain negative, hateful messages about yourself.
Let’s get started on re-calibrating your relationship with food!
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Traci Baxendale Ball, LMSW, CAADC is the founder of Vibrant Health Company LLC
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